It’s not scientifically controversial to claim that, under certain conditions, violent revenge is logical and highly adaptive to human survival. When the rule of law is absent, for example, the credible threat of revenge might be the best insurance against becoming a target of violence.
But in his new book, Beyond Revenge, psychologist Michael McCullough argues that forgiveness is also an honest-to-god biological adaptation, naturally selected for its benefits to the individual. What he terms the “forgiveness instinct” exists across a wide range of organisms, but stands most pronounced among Homosapiens.
McCullough’s book combines empirical studies, fascinating examples of revenge and reconciliation in the animal kingdom, and anecdotes of people committing extraordinary acts of vengeance and forgiveness.
But McCullough also prescribes practical measures we can take in pursuit of a more forgiving society. From the mundane (better policing, stronger and more trust- worthy governments) to the more radical (restructuring our justice system to make offenders repay their victims instead of incurring abstract “debts to society”), the book provides a recipe for how to stimulate the instinct for forgiveness and how to dull the instinct for vengeance.
Though revenge and forgiveness are written into our blood, argues McCullough, it is within our power to elevate one over the other.